The Strength of Weakness

We have an addiction to power.

The “we” here is fluid; you can plug in many different words into that placeholder and it will still be a true statement. 

Americans have an addiction to power.
Christians have an addiction to power.
Politicians have an addiction to power. 

See? It works. 

This addiction leads to lots of problems, both for our society and us. It causes us to ignore the cries of the oppressed and impoverished. It causes us to be harsh and cruel with those who challenge our power and privilege. It causes us to blame the victims, and not the victimizers (because they share our power). This addiction causes us to resist calls for justice and equality, because we fear it will somehow diminish our place of dominance. 

We have an addiction to power, and like all addiction, it’s killing us.

This current election cycle has, once again, exposed our habit. We can see its hooks in us, particularly when we start talking about “strength.” See, everyone wants to appear strong. And to do so, you need displays of strength.

So, 
we belittle those who seem weak or different,
we speak harshly and condescendingly to those with whom we disagree,
we use our place of privilege to demean and debase those who don’t have access to power. 

We have an addiction to power, to shows of dominance and strength.  

Once, when Jesus and his disciples were on a journey, he overheard them arguing about which of them would be greatest, strongest, first. Notice his response:

They entered Capernaum. When they had come into a house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about during the journey?” They didn’t respond, since on the way they had been debating with each other about who was the greatest. He sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be least of all and the servant of all.” Jesus reached for a little child, placed him among the Twelve, and embraced him. Then he said, “Whoever welcomes one of these children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me isn’t actually welcoming me but rather the one who sent me.”
Mark 9v33-37, CEB
Children, in the ancient world, had less sentimental value than today; children were the epitome of powerlessness. They had no realm over which they could assert dominance or control. They were innocent, vulnerable, and the bottom of the food chain. Yet, Jesus says to his disciples then, and to us now, that to experience the life of the Kingdom is to become like a little child. 
In Luke’s gospel a similar scene occurs during the “Last Supper.”

An argument broke out among the disciples over which one of them should be regarded as the greatest. But Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles rule over their subjects, and those in authority over them are called ‘friends of the people.’ But that’s not the way it will be with you. Instead, the greatest among you must become like a person of lower status and the leader like a servant. Luke 22v24-26, CEB

Jesus explicitly and specifically calls his followers to an upside down relationship to power. For Jesus, true power, real strength, is displayed in compassion, service, generosity…essentially, love. Greatness is not about being at the top of the ladder and proudly looking down on those whom we have passed on the way up. True greatness is about lifting up the oppressed and marginalized. It’s about binding the wounds of victims, while seeking justice on their behalf. In the words of a song my friend Heatherlyn wrote, “True power is love.”
Only from this vantage point do Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 12 make sense:
So I’ll gladly spend my time bragging about my weaknesses so that Christ’s power can rest on me. Therefore, I’m all right with weaknesses, insults, disasters, harassments, and stressful situations for the sake of Christ, because when I’m weak, then I’m strong.
2 Corinthians 12v9-10, CEB
Weakness is strength?
Power through vulnerability?
It’s counterintuitive, but Jesus says this is what life in the reality and flow of God is like. 
So, if compassion and generosity, love and grace, kindness and empathy are seen as weaknesses in our culture of politics and power, then may we echo the words of Paul.
May we celebrate such weakness, because it is true strength, true power.  

Freedom of Religion*

Pew Research Center (PRC) released a study last year that covered a seven year span, from 2007 to 2014. According to the study, in that seven year period, the Christian share of the population fell from 78.4% to 70.6%. That’s a 7.8% drop in seven years. Yet, that’s still 7 in 10 Americans who identify with some branch of the Christian stream. That’s 70% of the population of these United States that identify with some branch or offshoot of the Christian tradition. I bring this up because there’s a persecution complex that seems to be afflicting a lot of Christians in our country. 

We (those of us who claim to belong to the Christian community) are not being persecuted. Not even close. There are people in the world who are, however. There are people who, by simply belonging to a Christian community, are risking their lives. And people aren’t saying Merry Christmas to them, either. To claim that we are persecuted here, in the United States of America, is an offense, a slap in the face, to those who actually are being persecuted. 

This brings up another, closely related, issue. There’s been more and more discussion lately about “religious liberty.” Religious liberty, of course, is enshrined in the First Amendment to US Constitution, and it reads like this:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Essentially, the government can’t tell you which church to go to or which religion to participate in. Actually, you’re free to avoid religion altogether. It’s not just freedom of religion, but also freedom from it, if you choose. 

A PRC study released in August of this year found that 40% of the respondents attended religious services at least once or twice a week, and 40% of that 40% (you with me?) reported that their clergyperson spoke about religious liberty. Among that 40%, 32% said the clergyperson spoke in defence of religious liberty, while 2% reported their clergyperson did not think religious liberty is under attack in America (6% said their clergyperson did both). 

What does this tell us? Lots of pastors believe their religious liberty is under attack. Since my cards are on the table (I’m one of the 2%), I want to offer a few thoughts about what is actually going on here. 

I think the phrase “religious liberty,” or “freedom of religion,”when it is used among Christians should often come with an asterisk. 

Freedom of Religion*

I think this would be more honest, because many people who bemoan Christian “persecution” in America aren’t really concerned about the freedom of religion for everyone; they are concerned about freedom of their religion. Lots of people wouldn’t bat an eye, and might actually celebrate, if the worship spaces of other religious traditions (especially Muslims) were under surveillance, or shut down altogether. Lots of people would support banning Muslim women from wearing their burkinis on the beach, like some regions have in France. How would they respond to their churches being surveilled? Or being forbidden to wear a cross or a t-shirt or a WWJD? bracelet (is that still a thing?)? To be blunt, it is hypocritical to complain about your religious liberty being diminished, if the diminishment of another’s doesn’t bother you.

I also think some have confused “religious liberty” with “public relations.” Here’s what I mean: You have the freedom to denounce people of other religions, races, sexual orientations, and ideologies. As long as you aren’t breaking other laws (hate speech, terroristic threatening, etc.), you can not only believe what you want, but actually speak about that belief. Publicly.  However, when the vast majority of people respond unfavorably, that doesn’t mean you’re being persecuted, or that your religious liberty is being taken away. It means that lots of people are exercising their right to free speech and religious liberty as well. You can’t have it both ways. If you want to publicly say what you believe, then you have to accept the reality that lots of people may respond unfavorably. That’s how it works. 

I think we should strive to protect the religious liberty of all people; Christian, Muslims, Atheists, everyone. I think my fundamentalist brothers and sisters have the right to their opinion. I also think those of us who might disagree have a right to express that disagreement, always civilly, always nonviolently. And they have the same right to disagree with me or others.

I’m grateful for this freedom. Truly grateful. So, let’s not diminish the sacrifices of those who sought to preserve these rights for us by claiming we are persecuted, when in fact we are just being disagreed with. Let’s not diminish the real suffering of our brothers and sisters (of any religious tradition) that are in danger because of their religious convictions around the world. Let’s agree to be kind and compassionate, all the while also being firm and convicted. Let’s agree to live out the teaching of Jesus, and actually every other major religious tradition as well, and treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. 

Orthowhatxy?

What is the point of being a Christian? What is the goal? If you were a visitor from another planet observing our religious gatherings and conversations, what understanding might you walk (or teleport?) away with? I would imagine that it would be easy to assume that the point is believing in the right doctrines and dogmas. After all, we spend lots of time and energy trying to discern what the right beliefs are, and the rest of our time is often spent trying to convince those who disagree with our rightness.

There’s a word for this emphasis on belief in the Christian tradition, and that word is orthodoxy. Etymologically, the word combines the Greek words ortho, which means ‘straight or right,’ and doxa, which means ‘opinion.’ Orthodoxy literally means ‘having the right opinion.’ Which, for me, has raised all sorts of questions.

How do we know who has the right opinion? There are some 36,000 different Christian denominations, all of which have differences of understanding and interpretation. Even within denominations there are a plurality of perspectives on various and sundry theological issues, and every perspective assumes that it is the correct (or more correct) one. To be sure, I think the current perspectives I hold about God/Jesus/Bible/faith are true, otherwise I wouldn’t hold them. 

Can anyone be totally correct? Is it really possible that one person or group or subset of a group could actually nail the truth down? Can a particular tradition invite you into their den and show you truth, stuffed and mounted on the wall? 

And what kind of attitude/posture comes from believing that you have it all figured out? As someone who once believed that I was that person who had conquered mystery, I can tell you the posture this attitude creates isn’t humble. Nor is it usually kind (did I just quote a Tim McGraw song?). When we think we have it all figured out, we can easily begin to think it’s our job to be the orthodoxy police for others. 

I literally told a friend once, “I have the speck out of my eye, and I am coming for the beam in yours.” As you might imagine, she was hurt by that. I’m not proud of it, but it’s true. I said it. 

What makes us think that the whole point of all this is having the right beliefs? It’s as if God will only love us and save us if we check off the right boxes doctrinally. We talk about grace, but we operate under the assumption that God will only be kindly disposed toward us if we get a high enough score on the exam.

It’s interesting that Jesus himself could not pass the exam. In his own time he was accused of being in league with the Satan, of being a false teacher and a false prophet. Jesus actually laid out some parameters for discerning who is and isn’t such a person.

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you dressed like sheep, but inside they are vicious wolves. You will know them by their fruit. Do people get bunches of grapes from thorny weeds, or do they get figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, and every rotten tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit. And a rotten tree can’t produce good fruit. Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Therefore, you will know them by their fruit. [Matthew 7v15-20, CEB]

For Jesus, a false prophet is known, not by their opinions on various doctrines, but by the kind of lives their opinions are creating. Jesus asserts that good fruit can’t come from a rotten tree, and bad fruit can’t come from a healthy tree. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. 

But what kind of fruit? In Galatians 5 Paul describes the transformational effect of the Spirit in the life of a person with the same metaphor, fruit. He writes,

…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Perhaps the question we should ask about the trueness or falseness of a particular person’s theological positions is this: Is there evidence in them that this good fruit is being cultivated? Are they becoming more loving, and as a result, more joyful, peaceful, kind, etc.?

Jesus puts the emphasis, not on our particular theologies alone, but on the kind of person they are cultivating. Have you ever known someone who is proudly orthodox, but in their interactions with others they are hateful, mean-spirited, bitter, and harsh? How can that be? As James asks, can saltwater and freshwater come from the same spring?

I am convinced there is a drastic difference in believing in something, and believing it. Believing in Jesus, giving intellectual assent to the orthodox understandings of the tradition and scripture, is far different than believing Jesus was right, and joining in his ongoing work in the world.

You can believe in Jesus and be cruel, mean-spirited, selfish, and hateful. But if you believe Jesus, if you seek to engage the path he invites us to, then you can’t help but be transformed. It’s just what happens in you and through you.

So, I don’t think much about being orthodox anymore. Don’t get me wrong; I know our beliefs matter, because what we believe, we do. Yet our fruit, our lives, are the truest evidence of what is happening in and through our beliefs. I’m not afraid of being wrong about this or that. I’m certain I’m wrong about some things, but if the Spirit is transforming me, then I assume those things will be brought to light over time. 

Paul says, again, to the Galatians (who were struggling with the tension between law and freedom):

Being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t matter in Christ Jesus, but faith working through love does matter. [Galatians 5v6, CEB]

Perhaps, today, we could say this: Being orthodox or unorthodox doesn’t matter in Christ Jesus, but faith working through love does matter.

 

 

Of This, I Am Certain: Letting Go of What We Can’t Have and Don’t Need

The voices that shaped my earliest religious memories were well intended. They passed on to me the understandings and traditions that had been handed to them by their parents and grandparents, pastors and Sunday school teachers. I say this as a preamble, a disclaimer of sorts, because I do value those people and places that shaped my earliest religious imagination. I have many wonderful memories of many wonderful people, and I wouldn’t trade them. They shaped me. They continue to shape me. And I am grateful. 

However, looking back there were two things that I was handed, things that were central to our way of approaching faith, God, and people, things that I now see as problematic. First, I was given fear as a primary lens through which to experience God. To be sure, I have spent too much of my life fearing God; not in the “reverencing or honoring” way, but in the “I am terrified of you,” way. If God is the source of your terror, to whom can you turn? Further, God always seemed distant, angry, and disapproving, and there was no real way to know you were ok with God. After all, you could die at any moment, and any unrepented of sin would damn you to Hell for all eternity. I can vividly remember being in elementary school and being terrified to go to sleep. What if I don’t wake up? Meeting God didn’t seem to be an inviting option. I would fall asleep listening to cassette tapes: We Are the World, the theme from Ghostbusters, and Elvis were favorites. They helped me calm down; they assuaged my fear for a moment. 

Then, there was the second thing I was given: certainty. I was taught not just to know, but to be certain about what I believed. Because having the certainty of our convictions was seen to be synonymous with the accuracy of our convictions. Doubt was the enemy, a chink in the armor through which Satan would wreck our faith. Our interpretation of the Bible had to be defended, even in the face of contradictory evidence. Actually, clinging to certainty in the face of evidence to the contrary was commended. Being sure, being certain, were essentially the equivalent of being faithful. 

To say my understanding of faith has changed drastically over the past fifteen years would be a massive understatement. Sometimes people I once knew more familiarly will tell me they are praying for me, but I don’t think they mean it in the encouraging way, but in the “I pray you’ll get right with the Lord before it’s too late,” way. And, as you might imagine, my relationship to fear and certainty have also changed. Now I understand that one of these things we don’t need, and one we can’t have. 

We don’t need fear, friends. We just don’t. Fear doesn’t bring out the best in us. Fear elicits our worst. Fear causes us to exclude “those people,” because they are unfamiliar, have different skin color, speak a different language, or hold a different perspective. Fear causes us to attack those we exclude, because the only way to be safe and secure is to strike preemptively against our “enemies.” Fear ultimately paralyzes us. We can’t move forward into new opportunity or progress because fear has convinced us that it is safer to shrink back than to step forward. The writer of 1 John puts it like this:

We have known and have believed the love that God has for us.
God is love, and those who remain in love remain in God and God remains in them…There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love.
(4v16,18, CEB)
God is love. That has always struck me. The claim isn’t that “God is loving,” although that is true and good. The claim here is much more radical. God, at the very core and essence of what God is, is love. Further, love drives away fear. Just as light, even the smallest flicker of a flame, dispels the darkness, love removes the dark cloud of fear from our lives. When fear is gone, love can make us whole and complete (the real meaning of “perfect” in the above passage). As beloved ones we can begin to live and act out of that wholeness. Fear is the enemy of wholeness, because fear is the opposite of love. I know, if we were playing a word association game and I said “love,” you would instinctively answer back with, “hate.” And you’d be correct. Remember, however, that fear is what produces hate. Once you allow fear to cause you to exclude others, you are a couple steps away from hating them. We need love, not fear
Which brings me to the other thing, the one we can’t have. I know this is alarming to some people, but we can’t have certainty. We just can’t. It isn’t available to us, especially when it comes to matters of faith (are you wondering if I’m certain about this?). Certainty implies some form of validation, some proof of which we do not have access. Seriously. Our best proof for what we believe is often that it feels true, but the conviction that something is true doesn’t make it so.  For example, to believe in God isn’t the same thing as having certainty that God is, that God exists. Right? Think about this: there are roughly 36,000 Christian denominations; all of them believe their way of thinking about God/Jesus/faith/Bible is correct (because, why would you believe something if you thought it was incorrect?). If being certain that I’m right, and you’re wrong is the key to my experience of faith or God, then we are all in big trouble. Thankfully, that just isn’t the case. 
We believe, but we don’t see.
Which might be the point.
I don’t think we can have certainty. It just isn’t available to us. What is available to us, however, is faith. Let me clarify what I mean by faith. I don’t mean the sort of name-it-claim-it stuff you see on religious broadcasting (although I was tempted to try it when my A/C went out last week). I don’t mean believing in things, in the sense of believing in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. What I mean by faith is much more practical and accessible. Faith, for me, means trust.  Hebrews 11 gives a beautiful description of faith, one that is obscured by most translations. In our quest for certainty, we translate Hebrews 11v1 something like this:
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. (NIV)
I know what you’re thinking right now. “Look,” you exclaim, “faith is the assurance of what we do not see!” But, before we leave this text, take a look at the rendering in the Young’s Literal Translation, which as the name indicates, seeks to translate the biblical texts from the original languages, literally. While all translations are interpretations to some extent, I find that in many cases the YLT preserves some words/ideas/concepts that often, for lack of a better way of putting it, get interpreted out.  Notice the YLT rendering of Hebrews 11v1:
And faith is of things hoped for a confidence, of matters not seen a conviction
Faith is confidence, conviction…trust. Faith doesn’t mean that you don’t study or challenge what you think. Faith doesn’t mean ignoring the doubt or questions and clinging to certainty. Faith means trusting enough to engage those things. Faith is trusting that whatever, Whoever, it is holding us up, our correctness is not a pre-condition for our belovedness. We are loved, period. We probably have some things right. We definitely have some things wrong. Even better, though, is the reality that we are loved and held in grace through it all. 
I wish I could go back to that elementary school kid version of me, lying awake, fretting and worrying. I wish I could tell that version of me that there’s nothing to fear. That God is far better than I could imagine. That I can rest in the unknown, the unknowable. That I can trust the goodness of Love. Deep down, though, that version of me always knew. Despite all my religious conditioning, I had great parents who loved me well. Now I understand how their love actually paved the way for my shift in understanding God and faith differently, from a place of love instead of fear. I hope to give my own son that gift.
So, while I am uncertain about many things, if I had to write one thing down in sharpie, if I were given a prompt to complete that said, “Of this, I am certain…,” this is what I would say: If I’m certain of anything, it’s that God is love. And when we allow that love to work in us and through us, there’s nothing to fear. 
And if that’s true, we’re going to be just fine.

Walking the Pastoral Tightrope

Inevitably, there’s always someone who says it. They don’t mean to be demeaning or to diminish the work you do. They don’t mean to sound cavalier about what you’ve given your life to do and be. At least I hope that’s true. 

But, nevertheless, every time I hear it, I feel frustrated. 

“You’re a pastor, so you really only work on Sunday. What do you do with the rest of your time?”

And you realize, when someone says some variation of the above, that they really do think all a pastor does is stand up on Sunday to give a teaching/sermon/talk. They don’t know about the hours of preparation, the hospital visits, the meetings, or the countless stories into which you are invited–some full of joy, some full of pain. They don’t know about that feeling you have at the end of a teaching, that feeling that your soul has just been bared before an entire room full of people, which for some has raised the central existential question of “what’s for lunch?”

The reality is, there are as many expectations of what a pastor is or should be as there are people in the room.

Some expect her to be a wise sage.
Some expect him to be ever-present and available.
Others want her to preach sermons that focus on “those people,” or for him to avoid any mention of politics, and just preach the truth (which often means affirming their preconceived ideas, not challenging them). 

There’s never a shortage of expectations or opinions about who pastors should be.
The job description is ever evolving. 

I’ve been in a pastoral role since I was 19. That’s way too young, by the way. It used to make me so mad when people would say, “You’re awfully young to be a pastor.” The truth is, they were right, and they don’t say it any more, much to my chagrin. Alas, I digress. My point is that for almost 20 years now I’ve been in this role, and my understanding of what it is and means is still growing. But, if I had to say, “A pastor is X,” then here’s what I would say:

Being a pastor is about holding the tension between the pastoral and the prophetic.

First, the pastoral role. “Pastoral” here connotes the role of a shepherd. Someone who comes alongside to offer guidance and care. This facet of being a pastor is where relationships are cultivated and bonds are formed. It’s the hospital visit, dedicating a new baby, offering comfort during a time of loss, presiding at a wedding, being a sounding board, seeking to offer whatever wisdom you have. The pastoral role is about joining people in their journey and, together, pursuing transformation. When most people think of a “good pastor,” they probably think of someone who was there for them, nurturing them, encouraging them. This aspect of being a pastor is so very important. 

Then, there’s the prophetic role. By “prophetic” I don’t mean “predicting the future.” That’s a misnomer. In the biblical tradition, a prophet is someone who speaks a message from God. This often takes the shape of speaking truth to power, challenging convention and status quo, casting a vision of what could be, and being a voice for the marginalized and the victims of said power.

Notice these lines from the Hebrew prophets:

The prophet Amos, speaking for God, says, 

“I hate, I reject your festivals;
I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies.
If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food—
I won’t be pleased;
I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals.
Take away the noise of your songs;
I won’t listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” [5v21-24, CEB]
The prophet Jeremiah challenged those among the religious leadership, who believed that the Temple protected them from judgment, in spite of their mistreatment of the most vulnerable among them:
“This is what the LORD of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, says: Improve your conduct and your actions, and I will dwell with you in this place. Don’t trust in lies: “This is the LORD’s temple! The LORD’s temple! The LORD’s temple!” No, if you truly reform your ways and your actions; if you treat each other justly; if you stop taking advantage of the immigrant, orphan, or widow; if you don’t shed the blood of the innocent in this place, or go after other gods to your own ruin, only then will I dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave long ago to your ancestors for all time.” [7v3-7, CEB]
These are two examples of a vast tradition of prophets who challenged hypocrisy, injustice, and inequality. This tradition has lived on. Jesus was considered a prophet in his day, one who spoke and embodied a message from God. To speak more contemporarily, people like Martin Luther King, Jr., who lived and died challenging the evils of segregation and racism, are in this same vein, this prophetic tradition. 
And we need the prophetic voices today. We need those who will risk their success, their comfort, or their position to speak truth to power; not because of partisanship, but because of truth. We need those who will refuse to sit quietly by while injustice becomes the norm, and instead, rattle the cages, make noise, and proclaim the justice and love of God.
This, friends, is a vital part of the pastoral calling. If pastors only speak polite platitudes, reinforce preconceived ideas and prejudice, live safely and collect a paycheck, then we have betrayed our calling and our tradition. Simply put, a pastor who doesn’t make you uncomfortable sometimes, who doesn’t challenge what you “know,” who doesn’t push you beyond your comfort zone, isn’t fulfilling the role he or she has been given. 
I don’t mean what we often think: pastors who yell and scream, who condemn “those” people, and keep long lists of who’s in and who’s out. 
I mean pastors who challenge our racism, who call us to generosity, who critique our power structures that benefit the few on top. I mean pastors who refuse to marginalize people who are made in the image of God, just because it’s good for the bottom line. I mean pastors who stand courageously for truth, justice, and compassion. I’m beyond grateful to know many of these pastors. They inspire me, and I want to be more like them when I grow up.
Of course, we also need the pastoral function of a pastor. That is essential to the caring for and leading of a community. But we do not need it at the expense of the prophetic function. We need pastors who will, as it is said, ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’
Being a pastor, some days, feels like walking a tightrope across a vast chasm with no net. At any moment you could lose your footing and fall into the canyon below. Yet, our love for people, our desire to participate in the transformation of ourselves, others, and our world, drives us forward. Our hope for a more just, generous, and compassionate world keeps calling us to walk this tightrope. And so, we walk. 

Getting Back to Our Roots: The Church As a Subversive Community

I would imagine that, for many people, Church has become synonymous with the status quo. After all, Christian communities have, throughout history, often been the most vocal defenders of the way things are. For evidence of this look no further than the position many Christians have taken on equality issues, whether it be racial, gender, or LGBTQ people. While there have been pockets of Christian communities that have been on the leading edge of such movements, the Church, writ large, has not been. 

This hasn’t always been the case. The roots of the Christian community are steeped in subversion, a refusal to accept that the way things are, are the way they must be. A cursory glance of the book of Acts shows our spiritual forebearers being thrown in jail, publicly maligned, and even killed because they refused to accept the status quo. Christianity, in its nascent form, was rebellious. 

Then Constantine “converted.” Then Christians were given the backing of the empire. Then the Christian community had a vested interest in keeping things the way they were, because the way things were was good for business. Thus, the Church in many places, has been a defender, not a challenger, of the status quo.

But yesterday, I had this profound experience as we were singing at MCC. We were singing a song called One Thing Remains, and there was a line I’ve heard dozens of  times, but it grabbed my attention, as if I’d just heard it for the first time. It went like this:

On and on and on and on it goes
Before, it overwhelms and satisfies my soul
And I never, ever, have to be afraid
One thing remains
So, one thing remains.

This one thing, the one thing that makes us unafraid, is the love of God. This complete, whole love drives away our fear, brings light into our darkness. Then, after singing this song, we celebrated the Eucharist together. We were given bread and wine, and invited to internalize them, to make these symbolic elements part of us.

 Yesterday at MCC, we were told not to be afraid, and then we celebrated the Eucharist.
And it hit me like a ton of bricks: this was act of subversion. 

We were subverting a culture that excels in making us afraid. Seriously, turn on the news. Listen to our presidential candidates. Talk to your neighbor. Ask your third cousin twice removed on your mother’s side. We are being conditioned to be afraid.

We are being told to fear
people of differing political perspectives,
people with different religious convictions,
people with different skin color,
and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Be afraid, we are told. Be very, very afraid. 

Add to this the way we are being told how to “fix” the problem, how we can be really great. We need to be stronger. We need to assert power over our enemies and allies alike. We need to distance “them.” We need to become wealthier. We need to dominate.

Yet, yesterday at MCC I was reminded that God is love–whole, complete love. And this kind of love that God is drives away fear (1 John 4v8). To stand in the midst of a fear based culture and declare that we won’t be afraid, because Love brought us into this world, and this Love will sustain us, is a defiant, subversive act. 

Then, to follow such a declaration by taking bread and wine, broken and poured out, is to insist that this is how the world will be healed. The world won’t be saved by another empire drunk on its own power and importance. The world won’t be mended by more fractures and divisions. The world will be saved, healed, and restored through generous, self-giving love. The kind of love that we see in Jesus, naked and bleeding, praying for his executioners.

Yesterday, at MCC, I was reminded just how subversive Church could be. I was reminded that, in our culture, refusing fear and celebrating the counterintuitive way the world can be healed is a defiant act, indeed.

So, let’s keep being defiant.
When we are handed fear, let’s reject it in favor of love.
When we are prodded toward division, let’s seek understanding.
When we are sold the myth of redemptive violence, let’s reject it in favor of restoration and peacemaking.
When we are told that greatness is defined by might and wealth, let’s choose the definition Jesus gave us: service and compassion.

The world needs defiant, subversive communities that seek to infuse it with hope, peace, generosity, faith, and most of all, love. 

Let’s be those kinds of people in the world, shall we?

Black Lives Matter and Why We Need to Say So

My son is more like me than I ever imagined another human being could be. We both love tacos, pulpy orange juice, pistachios, super heroes, and sports.We both have the gift (?) of sarcasm. Once when I picked him up from daycare, when he was three or so, the owner told me she had no doubt whose child he was.  On Sundays we dress alike. He even crosses one leg over the other when he reads, just like I do. 

There is one difference between us. As he puts it, his skin is dark and mine is light. This isn’t a new discovery for him, but it has been something he’s talked more about lately. And when we talk about it we talk about how much we are alike, and how beautiful his skin is, and how this difference is something that is wonderful. 

Yet, almost every day I am reminded that some people in our world don’t see these different hues we share to be wonderful. Friends, we absolutely have a racism problem in America, and this is a problem that keeps me awake at night. Someday (too soon!) my child with dark skin will drive off in a car, without me, and to be honest, that terrifies me. 

Please hear me: I am not saying all police officers are bad. They aren’t. I would be willing to wager that the vast majority are wonderful human beings who have given their lives to protect and serve our communities. They deserve our appreciation and respect. I believe that is a fact, and the officers I know personally are these kinds of people. And what happened in Dallas was an evil act of violence carried out by an ill person, and it should be condemned in the strongest of terms. 

All violence is evil. Every violent act is wrong.
All deaths should be grieved.

But we cannot deny that some of those who wear badges aren’t seeking to protect and serve everyone in their community. Some use their position of power to dominate, humiliate, and in the worst cases, commit murder under the guise of law and order. That, too, is a fact. To demonize all police officers would be wrong, of course, and I don’t hear that happening by and large.  It would also be wrong to ignore the reality that some, a minority, are using their position and authority to enact their biases. This isn’t just true of police; people in all kinds of authority positions abuse their power: clergy, business, you name it. And the “bad apples” cannot be allowed to spoil the bunch.

Which brings me to the phrase, and the movement, Black Lives Matter. Many white people I’ve talked to take exception to this phrase. “All lives matter,” they say. Here’s the thing, all human life is sacred. All human life has inestimable value and worth. Regardless of skin color, nationality, sexual orientation, political affiliation–any of the boundaries or labels we create–every human being is made in the image of God, and deserves dignity and respect. That’s true. Yet, I believe we must affirm and proclaim that Black lives matter. 

I have a friend who has two daughters. He loves them both deeply. He’s a good dad. However, when one of his two daughters was diagnosed with an illness that was considered critical, this daughter received the focus in a different way. She was sick and needed to receive treatment, and he would have moved heaven and earth (and did) to make sure she was ok. Did the other daughter cease to matter? Of course not! But in that moment, the daughter who was in danger had to become the focal point. Can you imagine asking him, “You’re taking off work to spend time with this daughter but not that one. Doesn’t she matter, too?” See?

When Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor, the meek, the persecuted,” we don’t stand up and protest, “But what about the rich, the powerful, and the non-persecuted?” Why? Because we get what Jesus is doing. He is announcing Good News to people who have been marginalized, excluded, and devalued by the system. 

This is why we must insist that Black lives matter. Because there are those who don’t yet know that it’s true. Because a parent should not have to worry that their child will become a victim because of the color of their skin. Because racism is evil, and against the very essence of the Kingdom of God. 

And we must keep saying it because right here in the USA, not too long ago, black bodies were bought and sold, refused human dignity, and banned from water fountains and lunch counters. 

To say “All lives matter” isn’t even true. Until we all know that Black lives matter, all lives really don’t.